Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Centennial of John Harrington Keene's Death

John Harrington Keene is one of the most overlooked fishing writers in Victorian American history. While his name is known to those knowledgable in the writings of the era, he has always taken a back seat to other writers from the era. This is unfortunate as Keene was a terrific writer who was, when on top of his game, better than any other fishing writer in America. He is best known--if he is known at all--for writing Fishing Tackle, Its Materials and Manufacture, a seminal work of its kind in America, but as the following obituary published in Forest & Stream notes, it was his Fly-Fishing and Fly-Making that was one of the most influential and important works in American fly fishing history.

Death of John Harrington Keene

Forest & Stream (08 June 1907)

John Harrington Keene, of Floral Park, L.I., who was prominent as an authoritative and entertaining writer on angling, died recently in a sanitarium in Bellows Falls, Vt., where he went a little over a month ago hoping to gain relief from the illness from which he suffered for the last five years.

Mr. Keene was an Englishman, and to this is attributed the fact that he never received the appreciation that his work deserved. Not than an Englishman may not be honored in America, but because his writings were colored, perhaps, by too frequent references to angling methods in Great Britain, whose conditions are widely different from those met with on this continent. He began by making artificial flies in England in 1865. His best works probably were "Fly-Fishing and Fly-Making" and "Fishing Tackle, Its Materials and Manufacture." The former, a handsome little volume, contains a deal of hand work, done by the author, who was an adept at fly tying. This was one of the first books of its kind to be published in America. It was published by the Forest and Stream Publishing Company and ran through several editions. He also wrote "The Angler's Complete Guide and Companion," "The Practical Fisherman," and hundreds of magazine articles. He was a man of good address, as might be judged from his writings, and had many warm friends among those, angler and others, with whom he was thrown. On the stream he was a patient and skillful angler, but it is said by the few who knew him well that he never quite became reconciled to American trout and American trout streams. And yet, after the death of Wm. C. Harris, he was perhaps the ablest writer on fly-fishing in America. Certainly his memory will long be cherished by the fraternity, the better, perhaps, when it is remembered that, though lacking the heart interest which he left behind in his native land, his writings were still at the time of his death the best that could be read in America.

One of the neatest pieces I uncovered in my research on the American fish hook that culminated in The History of the Fish Hook in America, Vol. I was the awe-inspiring letter that Keene wrote in 1886 attacking Henry Cholmondeley-Pennell where Keene referenced Talleyrand and Palmerston, two Napoleonic war figures, and used the wonderfully obscure Greek phrase "to pile Pelion on Ossa." I simply had to reproduce this lost gem in full in my book.

We celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passing of John Harrington Keene with the hope that some of you will rediscover this great fishing writer.

--Dr. Todd

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